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Spotlight on integrity

‘Leiden University's code of conduct on Integrity is comprehensive and complete,' says Zeger van der Wal, Professor by Special Appointment in Public Administration at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. He is the holder of the Dales chair, funded by the CAOP. Van der Wal's specialist field is public management, specifically integrity.

Integrity scandals are bad for academia

In any conversation about integrity at universities, the issue of academic integrity immediately comes to the fore. There have been a number of scandals in the Netherlands involving negligent or even fraudulent academics. 'That's bad for the reputation of the faculty, the university and for academia as a whole,' says Van der Wal. 'That's why it's good practice for universities to be alert to the issue.'  Van der Wal's reading of the list of rules and regulations is that there are no significant omissions. 'The Code of Conduct on Integrity is comprehensive and complete. And I see, for example, that conduct with regard to students has also been set out in a code. That's great. I do have to admit, though, that I haven't compared the Leiden code with the guidelines applied by other universities.' 

Zeger van der Wal: 'In the social sciences you need to define your research methods very precisely.'

Traditional authority is waning everywhere

We're living in a time when science is often referred to as 'just an opinion'.  It's something that particularly affects the social sciences, including public administration, Van der Wal's specialist field. ‘The context goes further than scientific scandals,' he comments. 'Everywhere in the world, authority is losing its effect and that includes traditional authority figures such as doctors, judges and scientists.' This is not just a western phenomenon, as Van der Wal knows only too well: his primary work is at the National University of Singapore, and east-west comparisons are one of his key areas of research. 'In the social sciences this waning authority means that you have to define your research methods as precisely as possible. But even so, studying public management is different from studying gravity, for example. You have to indicate the possible limitations of your findings, and explain modestly that it's a bit of this and a bit of that, if that's what your research shows.  But at the same time you have to make it very clear that you used valid research methods.' 

Integritity is gaining importance

Van der Wal points to another current trend, namely that all over the world, strong leaders are coming to power who value effectiveness above integrity, like Trump in the US, Maduro in Venezuela, Zuma in South Africa, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in the Philippines. Although some of these leaders undoubtedly believe they are doing the best for their country, the checks and balances suffer under their leadership. At the same time, integrity is gaining in significance throughout the world, in the public sector as well as in industry. 'There's a lot of focus on integrity,' says Van der Wal. 'China's ambition is to become the new world leader. The country is now conducting strong anti-corruption campaigns because people understand that a certain standard of integrity is an integral part of this new ambition. And what we're seeing in particular is that international companies that overstep the mark are suffering the consequences with a high level of negative media attention. And that damages their reputation, which is something they definitely don't want.' 

What could turn the tide?

Is it possible that the tide could turn in those countries where things have gone seriously wrong? Van der Wal: ‘Yes, I would say it can. The best-known examples are the city states of Hong Kong and Singapore, both of which were corrupt to the core fifty years ago; nothing worked properly.' There are four pressure points that can bring about a process of reversal, says Van der Wal: ‘The first is that corruption has to be met with severe penalties, including at the highest levels of state government. Secondly, there is pressure from below, for example from young people who want change, as well as pressure from outside, from multinationals. Thirdly, you have to pay your civil servants a proper wage so that they don't need income from other sources and so that they form part of a meritocracy: it's important to promote a worker who does his or her job well, not because of personal or family relations. And fourthly, you have to make serious investments in developing the right culture. Hong Kong and Singapore both have an Anti-corruption Agency with a lot of staff and a lot of authority.' 

Integrity 1.0 - 3.0

Making all kinds of rules and setting up committees and confidential advisers where people can report infringements of integrity is all well and good, but is it enough? Van der Wal: ‘A broader approach is better.’ In a nutshell that means:

  1. Setting strict legal rules and acting on them if the rules are broken. 
  2. Setting out policies for the softer components, such as values and culture. Share dilemmas with one another and create a structure for discussing them. 
  3. Making awareness of integrity a component of leadership and professional responsibility. 


But things can go too far, in Van der Wal's opinion. 'In one major Dutch town, being late was treated as an infringement of integrity. That was over the top. If you regularly arrive late because you  have a hangover that stops you doing your work properly, that's a different matter. One of my PhD supervisors at the Free University in Amsterdam, Leo Huberts, coined the term integritism to refer to integrity that has gone too far. He felt that integrity had lost all meaning.’

Leiden University Code of Conduct on Integrity


The Day and Night of Integrity is taking place on 12 and 13 April in Gouda and The Hague. The 'Night' (12 April) is aimed at public officials, the 'Day' (13 April) is for staff working in the public and semi-public domain. The event itself is an initiative of the CAOP, the knowledge and service centre for employment matters in the public domain, which also manages the Ien Dales chair. Provincial authorities, the waterboards and the Association of Municipalities in the Netherlands are also involved in organising the event.

Zeger van der Wal will be giving a lecture on 13 April, the Day of Integrity, on 'The new public official in the era of ultra-transparency.' He will also be chairing the Night of Integrity on 12 April.

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